One of the joys of local patch birding is that you can see just how each year is different, and the past 12 months have certainly been different! We had the coldest spring for 50 years, June gales brought in a record count of Manx Shearwaters, a very wet and windy winter resulted in a huge tidal surge in December which might well have equalled the highest ever recorded here and record numbers of Common Scoters were recorded in January.
Spring brought in some nice wildfowl with American Wigeon (also present last winter), Blue-winged Teal and a Lesser Scaup, as well as a Bee Eater, Hoopoe, a Sabine's Gull and a Temminck's Stint. Autumn gales saw the arival of at least three Long-tailed Skuas and there was a very confiding Grey Phalarope at Gronant. A Semi-palmated Sandpiper was a great find at Hoylake in September and a Blyth's Reed Warbler was at Red Rocks in October. BBRC have now accepted the Buff-bellied Pipit present at Burton from December to February (the first for north-west England), a Northern Wheatear (possibly two?) was also at Burton in the middle of winter and this is a real mega for the area at that time of year.
The good wader winter of 2012/13 continued into March and we had some high counts early in the month, the most notable being 28,000 Knot on the 1st and 4,000 Grey Plover on the 2nd, both at Hoylake. The very cold spring continued right through April and migration was held up all through the country, including Black-tailed Godwits with up to 1,600 in glorious full summer plumage in a field in Caldy for two weeks. It was a surprise to see over 500 non-breeding Black-tailed Godwits over-summering in the estuary with birds regularly being seen off West Kirby and numbers increased up to 1,000 here as birds returned from breeding in August.
Highlights of the return migration were
a Wood Sandpiper and eight Green Sandpipers at Burton Mere Wetlands in
July, 10 Spotted Redhanks at Connah's Quay and 1,600 Ringed Plover at
Hoylake in August and 23 Greenshank at Parkgate in October. In addition
we had a very good Curlew Sandpiper passage in September including a
total of 17 at West Kirby, Red Rocks and Hoylake on the 6th with six at
Burton on the 24th.
Pink-footed Geese numbers continue to increase and a whopping 5,000 were on Burton Marsh on both March 17th and November 29th. I don't have any counts for Pintail for the whole estuary but 1,300 at Thurstaston on December 21st was the highest ever recorded at that site, but in the New Year they all left presumably to feed on inland floods.
Large numbers of Common Scoter winter off North Wales but usualy we only see relativley small numbers off the Dee Estuary, but this last winter we had 12,000 on February 10th and 7,000 on February 19th, both flocks observed from Hilbre out towards the North Hoyle Wind Farm, on the same dates many hundreds were also recorded from North Wirral.
Despite the cold spring we did actually have some westerly gales in April and we had some great sea watching including 590 Gannets, a Great Skua, a Pomarine Skua, 85 Red-throated Divers and 490 Razorbills on the 18th. Spring and early summer was also exceptional for Manx Shearwaters including a massive 5,000 counted from Hilbre on June 22nd.
It's not many years that we get both a good Curlew Sandpiper and Leach's Petrel passage, but that is what happened in September, max count of Leach's Petrel was 109 past Hilbre on the 17th. We also had a 'friendly' Great Skua which hung around the estuary from Heswall to Red Rocks for several days in September, at one time it flew within about 10 feet of myself at Thurstaston! It was also a good month for Mediterrean Gulls with a total of 19 records. January saw a Great Northern Diver, a Slavonian Grebe and 84 Red-throated Divers off Hilbre and 553 Great Crested Grebes off North Wirral.
The huge tide on December 5th caught everyone by surprise, both here and across the country. On the day the weather was so bad that birdwatching was difficult to say the least, but we did see 12 Water Rails at Parkgate although the total number will have been much higher than that and I'm thinking of a total of 50+ between the south end of Parkgate, past the Old Baths and to Cottage Lane - but that's just a guess! But it did result in a huge amount of tidewrack right around the shore of the estuary including at Burton, as already mentioned. This attracted not only the rarities already mentioned but many other small birds including Linnets, Stonechats, Meadow Pipits, Water Pipits, Pied Wagtails and a nice flock of over-wintering Chiffchaffs with at least one Siberian Chiffchaff at Burton, with another at Neston.
There was another very big tide on January 3rd and in total I reckon we've seen seven tides high enough to completely cover the marsh at Parkgate, with at least of those two high enough to reach the end of Station Road at Burton Marsh - an exceptional winter. As usual the highlight is seeing close views the Short-eared Owls the highest number being a total of 12 on Jan 3rd.
Also on the marshes have been a total of at least four ringtail and one grey male Hen Harriers. A Marsh Harrier was at Burton Mere Wetlands at the end of the month. A large flock of up to 90 Twite has been resident at Connah's Quay all winter, sometimes also flying to Flint Castle and across the river to Outer Burton Marsh.Top of Page
Those living locally will no doubt be aware of the possibility that Underground Coal Gasification (UCG) may be carried out on the Dee Estuary as there has been a lot of recent media coverage. This has caused a lot of concern among people, meetings have been held and there has been much discussion on various blogs and forums. So what exactly is UCG, what threat does it pose for the estuary and how likely is it to be given the go ahead?
On Jan 14th 2013 it was announced that Cluff Natural Resources had been given a Conditional Licence for UCG on the Dee Estuary - click here to download a PDF file of the press announcement, which includes a map of the proposed area. It should be said here that granting of a licence is just the first stage and by no means is it a licence to actually go ahead and carry out any work. The PDF file does go into some detail about the UCG process and some more details can be found in WikiPedia - see the WikiPedia UCG section. Currently, worldwide, there is only one commercial operation, in Uzbekistan. However, in the past few years there have been various trials across the world, with more planned. Many of these have hit problems with those in Australia shut down because of contamination of groundwater with the carcinogenic chemical Benzene as well as Toluene, with similar problems in the USA. Some operations have been shut down as the companies have failed to demonstrate that they can carry out decommissioning safely, as the process involves igniting coal underground this could be a big problem to overcome. Another problem to overcome, particularly here on the Dee Estuary, is the location of the necessary infra-structure. The gas will have to be brought ashore by pipe, and, as it is a mixture of gases, will need a sizeable plant to separate and store the carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, hydrogen and methane. UCG is often compared to Fracking, but the latter is comparatively benign in terms of potential environmental damage, and one certainly gets the impression that once this is widely known that the the anti-fracking protests will seem small beer compared to what will happen if UCG ever gets the go ahead.
The current situation on the Dee Estuary is that no firm proposal for any work has been made as of February 2014, and therefore no planning application has been made. Given the problematical nature of this process, and the fact that no other trial has yet been given the go ahead in the UK, I would guess any application is a long way off. But it should be noted that "Cluff has four years remaining on its licence to gain the necessary planning rights and present a credible business plan".
But there are two other big problems looming for Cluff Natural Resources. The first is the sheer physical difficulty of operating drilling rigs and laying pipework safely in the estuary - given the huge rise and fall of the tides, shifting sand banks and changing channels. The second, and perhaps most important, is that the Dee Estuary is one of the most heavily protected sites in the country under National, European and Global regulations, which I describe below.
Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). This is the designation most well known to the general public but is arguably the least strong of the four. But this is what Natural England say on their website "SSSIs are the country's very best wildlife and geological sites. They include some of our most spectacular and beautiful habitats - large wetlands teeming with waders and waterfowl, winding chalk rivers, gorse and heather-clad heathlands, flower-rich meadows, windswept shingle beaches and remote uplands moorland and peat bog" and "Section 28 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 as replaced by Schedule 9 to the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 and inserted by the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 (‘the Wild life and Countryside Act’) gives us the power to make sure SSSIs are protected and managed effectively now and in the future. As part of our work, we are responsible for enforcing this section of the law and can take appropriate enforcement action when the law is broken and when the habitat and features of SSSIs are damaged, disturbed or destroyed."
Special Protection Area (SPA). SPAs are strictly protected sites classified in accordance with Article 4 of the EC Birds Directive, which came into force in April 1979. This designation means that no development or operation can take place which significantly disturbs the bird life of the estuary. Any body which proposes to carry out any development or operation will have to produce a detailed Environmental Assessment to prove that no such disturbance or any loss of habitat would take place. In some cases a Public Inquiry would be held, and in the rare case that a project is given the go ahead there would have to be mitigation against any potential disturbance or loss of habitat. To show how strong the SPA designation is remember what happened at Southampton in 2004 when a proposal to build a large container port at Dibden Bay was turned down because it was an SPA. This was despite the port claiming the expansion was essential for the prosperity of the Port and that it would result in thousands of jobs.
Special Area of Conservation (SAC). SACs are strictly protected sites designated under the EC Habitats Directive, so the designation is similar to SPAs but concentrating on the general habitats of the estuary rather than particular bird species. So the the remarks made above for SPAs equally apply, particularly for the protection of habitats.
The Convention on Wetlands
of International Importance, called the Ramsar Convention, is an
intergovernmental treaty that provides the framework for national
action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use
of wetlands and their resources. The UK is a contracted party to this
treaty and therefore is obliged to Work towards the wise use of all
their wetlands through national land-use planning, appropriate policies
and legislation, management actions, and public education; Designate
suitable wetlands for the List of Wetlands of International Importance
("Ramsar List") and ensure their effective management; and Cooperate
internationally concerning transboundary wetlands, shared wetland
systems, shared species, and development projects that may affect
Additionally the Hilbre Islands are a Local Nature Reserve, the benefits of which include "protect wildlife and natural features" and "offer a positive use of land which they would prefer was left undeveloped". The main aim must be to care for the natural features which make the site special.
If the forthcoming proposal for UCG on the Dee Estuary does indeed mean that there will be several rigs (I understand there has to be a minimum of two boreholes), associated pipework plus a processing plant and gas storage facilities then it is difficult to conceive that this can all take place without a large amount of disturbance to the birds protected by the SPA and a large amount of damage to habitat protected by the SAC. In addition there will be a very negative visual impact. The CEO of Cluff Natural Resources has stated that any UCG here will be 'offshore'. To my mind 'offshore' means permanent deep water, which means most of the Dee Estuary would be ruled out, and, as most of the the remaining deep channels are used by shipping going to Mostyn Dock and by Airbus up to Broughton, it doesn't leave much scope to work in. Perhaps it is intended to put the rigs out in Liverpool Bay and drill sideways, but Liverpool Bay is also an SPA...........
this means that even if the UCG operators iron out their practical and
environmental problems, and even if the UK starts running out of
Natural Gas and if UCG then gains public approval, the Dee Estuary
would still be a wholly inappropiate place for UCG to take
If we see UCG rigs on the Dee Estuary in the next ten years I'll eat my telescope!
Sources of Information:
1. Fred Pearce, Beyond Fracking, New Scientist 15 February 2014.
2. Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Underground_coal_gasification.
3. BBC Radio Merseyside, Tony Snell interview with Algy Cluff (CEO, Executive Chair and founder of Cluff Natural Resources) on Feb 3rd 2014.http://jncc.defra.gov.uk/.
|White Wagtail||14th March||Leasowe Lighthouse||8th March||11th March|
|Wheatear||17th March||Leasowe Lighthouse||9th March||13th March|
|Sand Martin||28th March||West Kirby||28th Feb||12th March|
|Willow Warbler||6th April||Red Rocks||20th March||16th March|
|Swallow||10th April||Red Rocks||17th March||20th March|
|House Martin||12th April||Hilbre||4th April||25th March|
|Cuckoo||13th April||Caldy||14th April||20th April|
|Whitethroat||15th April||West Kirby||1st April||8th April|
|Swift||17th April|| Sealand
||26th April||17th April|
1st March, 10.57hrs (GMT), 9.9m.
2nd March, 11.42hrs (GMT), 10.1m.
3rd March, 12.24hrs (GMT), 10.1m.
4th March, 13.06hrs (GMT), 9.9m.
31st March, 11.21hrs (GMT), 9.9m.
1st April, 12.02hrs (GMT), 9.9m.
Organised by the Wirral
Ranger Service , Flintshire
Countryside Service, the
RSPB (Dee Estuary) and the Cheshire
All these events and walks have bird interest, even those not advertised specifically for birdwatching. No need to book for these events unless specified - please check below.
Also see 2014 Events Diary.